Kianni Vigeant had never considered a job in manufacturing before serendipitously landing in one. Dianna O'Brien only knew about the possibilities because of her mother. Yet both women have found successful careers in this growing segment of the American economy, reinvigorated thanks to new investment and an emphasis on "Buy American" by the Biden administration.
Now, Vigeant and O'Brien want more women to follow in their footsteps.
"Union manufacturing jobs offer women independence and financial security," said O'Brien, the business manager of Lincoln, Neb., Local 2366. "There should be more recruiting for these jobs because they offer fair pay and good benefits, and our women members want that just as much as anyone else."
|IBEW sisters, like Waltham, Mass., Local 1505 Vice President and benefits counselor Kianni Vigeant, pictured second from the right, are finding rewarding careers in the booming manufacturing sector, which has been reinvigorated by new federal investments and “Buy American” incentives.
With the passage of the CHIPS and Science and Inflation Reduction Acts ushering in a new era of domestic manufacturing, there's a need for more workers to fill the family-sustaining jobs that will come with billions of dollars in funding, much of which is geared toward recruiting people from traditionally underrepresented groups.
In 2022, more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs were added each month, and the industry is projected to continue growing. When combined with the need to replace retiring workers, employers will need to attract more than 4 million new workers before the end of the decade. In short, more women need to know about these opportunities, particularly when they are unionized.
Manufacturing employs one in 10 workers in the United States, but fewer than a third of them are women, much lower than the share of all jobs in the economy held by women. And in higher-earning shop floor positions, women are particularly underrepresented, according to a report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
In an effort to find out what's behind that disparity, the think tank, in collaboration with the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, surveyed more than 400 women about their experience in the industry. The findings paint a picture of a job sector ripe with opportunity, especially where unions are present, and a workforce that's eager to grow its ranks.
"The report shows that many women are thriving in manufacturing but also highlights practices that need to change for the industry to attract and retain a diverse set of women," the authors wrote.
One of those practices is getting women in the door. According to the survey, fewer than one in 10 respondents learned about manufacturing opportunities from high school counselors, during their military service, or at a job center.
"We don't offer enough education in high schools about manufacturing jobs," O'Brien said. "I found out about my job because my mom worked here."
For Vigeant, she was working as a paralegal in a lawyer's office when she saw that an assembler at Raytheon, one of the firm's clients, was making almost double what she was. After speaking with the woman, Vigeant quickly applied for the position. She hasn't looked back since.
"It was the best decision I ever made," said the Waltham, Mass., Local 1505 vice president and benefits counselor.
O'Brien and Vigeant agree there should be more dedicated recruiting to let women know about what they only learned by chance.
"I share my story in new hire orientations all the time about how this job allowed me to support my two kids, and that I was a single parent during some of that time," O'Brien said. "A union manufacturing job, with its pay and benefits, can offer a lot of security."
Manufacturing jobs can also offer opportunities for advancement, though it seems to be harder for women to climb the ranks than men. According to the IWPR report, women account for just one in seven production workers who are paid at least $1,000 per week, and they hold fewer than one in 10 higher-paying jobs like machinists or welders. IWPR also noted that survey respondents in leadership development were the least likely to report equal treatment.
O'Brien, who works at Schneider Electric producing circuit breakers and other component parts, said she's seen similar disparities. They have 122 "set-up jobs" which don't require a degree but do require testing. They're higher-paying jobs that require mechanical ability, and only 25 of those positions are filled by women. They also have 61 skilled trades jobs, which include machinists, toolmakers and electrical mechanics. Just one toolmaker is a woman.
"I'm not sure why the numbers are low. I feel like sometimes the women who have been here for a long time are just comfortable where they are and may be getting close to retirement," O'Brien said. "However, I do see more of the newer women employees testing for the set-up jobs and upgrading to those classifications."
O'Brien said she herself is a set-up and encourages everyone to try for the positions.
"With automation I feel like it gives you more job security," O'Brien said. "At our facility we encourage everyone to upgrade their skills and to go for those higher-paying opportunities."
When it comes to discrimination and harassment, manufacturing, like most industries, is not immune. Fewer than half, or 45%, of the survey's respondents said they are always or frequently treated equally as men in recruitment and hiring.
Notably, union members, who made up a majority of the respondents, were more likely than nonunion members to report always or frequently being treated equally when it comes to pay, access to good shifts, layoffs and recruitment. And 68.5% highlighted the importance of support from their locals for their success and staying power. Union members also pointed to the collective voice they have as members, as well as mentorship and support from other women.
"The IBEW has and continues to lead the way when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and within the manufacturing industry we have always welcomed everyone to become a member regardless of gender, ethnicity, creed, sexual orientation or any other protected status," Manufacturing Department Director Brian Lamm said. "Working under a union contract ensures that there are no disparities in pay or benefits and means men and women doing the same job are paid the same."
Vigeant credits her union status for protecting her from harassment and discrimination, and for being able to advance in her career.
"In my past work experiences, I had to deal with harassment and discrimination because I'm an Asian American. I felt that I could never get ahead or be treated equally," she said. "Since I have been at Raytheon, I've been able to get an upgrade from an assembler to a quality assurance inspector, and now to my current role as the local's vice president and union benefits counselor. This is all due to being a member of Local 1505."
O'Brien said she's seen some harassment, but it gets addressed. For her personally, she recalled a time when she brought up something with a former plant manager in a meeting only to be blown off by him. Then a male officer said the same thing and got the recognition she had been denied.
"I was a little shocked because I hadn't really experienced that before," she said.
Like Vigeant, O'Brien said their union contract has helped provide a more level playing field.
"I think union workers are more likely to speak up because our contracts have language regarding just cause, wages and job awards, and our local would and does address any violation of that," O'Brien said.
Despite the imbalances, O'Brien and Vigeant said that manufacturing jobs, with union representation, offer a great pathway to a fulfilling career.
"There are plenty of opportunities to rise through the ranks," Vigeant said. "The recruiters just have to make it known that women can do the same jobs as men, that we are all equally talented if given the opportunity."